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From the bestselling author of Sally Hemings comes an extraordinary new novel based on the true story of Sarah Baartman, a South African herdswoman exhibited as a “scientific curiosity” in the capitals of nineteenth-century Europe.
Barbara Chase-Riboud’s previous historical novels won her critical praise and established her as a writer who daringly transforms the hidden truths of the past into compelling fiction. In Hottentot Venus, Chase-Riboud recounts the tragic life of Sarah Baartman, re-creating in vivid, shocking detail the racism and sexism at the heart of European imperialism.
Born in the colony of Good Hope, South Africa, in 1789, Sarah Baartman was taken to London at the age of twenty by an English surgeon, who promised her fame and fortune. Dubbed the “Hottentot Venus,” she was paraded naked in Piccadilly in a freak-show exhibition and subjected to the unabashed stares and crude comments of the British public, which resulted in a sensational trial for her custody by British abolitionists. Soon afterward, however, Baartman's keeper – who may have been her husband – sold her to a French circus owner. In 1814, her new owner took her to Paris as part of an exotic animal circus to be displayed to French high society. Baartman endured unconscionable exploitation and cruelty as medical experts and leading scientists touted her as an example of primitive evolution because of her genital “apron” and her prominent buttocks.
In an unforgettable saga that ranges from Capetown to St. Helena to London to Paris and back to Africa, Chase-Riboud has fashioned a Dickensian evocation of this icon of scientific racism, whose body, sex, and brain were exploited, examined, and dissected to become a synonym of ugliness and brutality — the absolute negation of European beauty, which even today taints our Western concepts of humanity. Sarah, the tragic heroine, evokes nineteenth-century novels of the “other” such as Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Nigger of the Narcissus.
In Hottentot Venus, Barbara Chase-Riboud evokes this strange and moving story in the voices of Baartman and her contemporaries, combining years of research with the sensitivity and perceptions of a masterful storyteller to bring the story to life. Like Chang and Eng and the author’s own Sally Hemings and Echo of Lions, HOTTENTOT VENUS is a powerful, stark portrayal of the harsh realities of race—a stunning look at the cruelty of curiosity, colonialism, and its twenty-first century consequences.
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Praise for Barbara Chase-Riboud
“Any book by Chase-Riboud is bound to be a knock-down, drag-out good read.” —Washington Times
“Barbara Chase-Riboud writes with a quill of eloquence that is indeed a sword, sounding with the spirituality of Toni Morrison and the passion of Charles Dickens.” —Elaine Brown, author of A Taste of Power and The Condemnation of Little B.
Praise for Sally Hemings
“Barbara Chase-Riboud is a consummate artist. She invites the reader to consider if resistance and submission can be employed as instruments to live through hazardous times. In a startling book, Chase-Riboud has shown us the cruelty of slavery and the romance of love . . . She has determined to keep us honest about history and give us a great read.” —Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
“This is one of the great American stories and it is admirably told.” —New York Times
“Unforgettable ... Extremely moving and poetic.” —The New Republic
“An act of great daring ... Deeply moving.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Exquisitely crafted ... A sensitive life study of a truly extraordinary woman: complex, courageous, irresistibly attractive ... elegantly self-possessed.” —Cosmopolitan
Praise for Echo of Lions
“Echo of Lions gives us Barbara Chase-Riboud's characteristic awesome research and brilliant dramatization of, I think, the most gripping, significant and epic saga that a century of slaveships ever produced." —Alex Haley, author of Roots
Praise for The President’s Daughter
“Chase-Riboud's passion for history and her obsession with the contradictions of sex and race that underlay the founding of the union bring great richness to The President's Daughter." —San Francisco Chronicle
BARBARA CHASE-RIBOUD is a Carl Sandberg Prize–winning poet and the prizewinning author of four acclaimed, widely translated historical novels, the bestselling Sally Hemings, Valide: A Novel of a Harem, Echo of Lions (about the Amistad mutiny), and The President’s Daughter, a prequel to Sally Hemings. She is a winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and received a knighthood in arts and letters from the French government in 1996. Chase-Riboud is also a renowned sculptor whose award-winning monuments grace Lower Manhattan. She is the rare living artist honored with a personal exhibition, “The Monument Drawings,” in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Born and raised in Philadelphia of Canadian American descent, she was educated at Yale University and is the recipient of numerous fellowships and honorary degrees. She divides her time between Paris, Rome, and the United States.
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